In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


Doctors and Barbers: Two of a Kind

We once knew them primarily as sawbones. "What don 't you know what a sawbones is...I thought everybody know 'd as a sawbones was a surgeon. " (Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, 1837).

Surgeons, however, didn't always saw bones. Many first practiced phlebotomy — the art of cutting the veins — bloodletting once being an accepted cure for almost any ailment.

Outside their place of business there stood a pole painted spirally with two stripes of red and white topped by a gilt knob. The pole represented the staff which the patient gripped during the ritual (the procedure not being for the faint of heart); the red stripe for the blood which was let in the process; the white for the bandage tightened about the arm, preparatory to the severing of the vein; and the gilt knob, for the brass basin, with an indentation which accommodated the patient's neck, for that part of the visit when he would lather up.

Huh? That's because the surgeon's primary role was also that of local barber. Check out the pole which for so many years graced all tonsorial operations from the Latin tonsorius, "of or pertaining to shearing or shaving."

In 1745, The Company of Barbers and Surgeons divided into two separate divisions, barbering and surgery thenceforth to be treated as two distinct processes.

Since then surgeons have cleaned up their act and moved up the social ladder. Barbers continue — several cuts below.